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Is Game Music All It Can Be?

November 7, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

This is a love song. A love song to video game music. A love song to video game music that spends a lot of time pointing out that video game music would do well to iron its shirt, shower every day, and would it kill it to maybe shave every once in a while?

This piece is directed toward those who make, compose for, and/or enjoy a cinematic game experience common to most triple-A and an increasing number of indie titles. It touches on elements common to all video games in many places, but the purpose is not to play the nagging Jewish mother to two-man developers about how they should be more like their big brother who graduated summa cum laude and landed a big contract with Activision and will probably cure cancer someday.

The purpose is to help producers communicate with their composers, help composers hone their craft, and help the end consumer become more educated about the potential value of game music.

Why Take a Cinematic Approach to Game Music?

Too long has video game music been relegated to a dusty corner of gamers' minds. Sure, we all have fond memories of chip-tunes and our favorite melodies, but video game music has typically been viewed as a background soundtrack, not something that plays directly into the visual elements. Just look at all the games that allow you to import or stream your own music while you play.

This is a shame. Music can have a tremendous impact on the mood, feel, and emotion of any visual elements a game can try to convey. A shift in the music can take the exact same visual scene in two completely different directions. (I've always liked this example to show how a different score can change things up:)

Video games come in many forms and serve many purposes as far as the type of entertainment -- Ninja Gaiden in hard mode clearly scratches a different itch than FarmVille -- but I think it is safe to say that the majority of triple-A and otherwise popular games are trying to take a more cinematic, story-focused approach. What was the last FPS you played that didn't have a story component, regardless of how preposterous the premise? The visual techniques reflect this -- effects that emulate real camera patterns like light bloom, lens flare, focal shift and even film grit are all very common in the modern game.

Video games are unique to this A/V field in a number of ways -- one of the most obvious being that the pacing and even the order of events can be dictated by the player. Writing for this sort of uncertainty definitely present problems that any video game developer needs to consider. However, as games become more scripted, planned, and emotionally impactful, game composers would do well to study the centuries of experience other mediums can provide them. Re-inventing the wheel is not something we want to do here.

The focus on cinematic visuals and storytelling becomes increasingly obvious as we look into just how much straight-up non-interactive cinematic storytelling can be found in games. Oh sure, there might be a "press X to not die" moment sprinkled here or there, but when you strip out the real gameplay you are often left with a long sequence of cut-scenes that rivals the length of major movies.

For instance, The Batman: Arkham City cutscene playlist on YouTube is just north of 2 hours and 30 minutes long, longer than the majority of motion pictures. Gears of War 3 is 1:43 in duration. Xenoblade Chronicles? North of five hours, beating even the extended edition of Return of the King in length. Even completely disregarding player-driven gameplay, there are entire movies contained inside today's games.

Unfortunately, video game developers and the players themselves don't often see this connection. Corners are cut, sacrifices made, flat-out wrong practices are repeated time and again, and the gaming media looks upon it and proclaims it good. Games have made great strides lately with a more cinematic approach to storytelling, but it's sad to see a crucial piece of that puzzle so often neglected. The Final Fantasy series, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect have managed to start to understand lighting, blocking, cinematography, and the like, and utilized them to great effect -- but what about the music?

All visual media is more closely related than some would think. Film, TV, advertising, and games all share many similar traits, and music publishers often treat them in a very similar way. Though each presents unique advantages and challenges, all can be summed up with two simple, tiny words:


This is the essence of all visually-oriented music. Video games have long been a valid medium for telling an intriguing story, and the "to picture" approach has been proven over the centuries to be the best companion, as such. Our reaction to the music is often more subconscious and deeper than our visual analysis. At best it enhances and deepens our understanding of what our eyes tell us -- sometimes directly adding, sometimes showing another facet or wrinkle that we didn't see.

With all the cinematic focus on visual elements, why wouldn't we take a cinematic approach to game music?

Before we discuss using musically nerdy cerebral philosophies to guide game scoring, perhaps a quick overview of some basic techniques are in order. Frankly, many games fail to get even these right. The essential problem is that you can't just write music and expect it to work.

Understanding Your Place

Our ears are specifically tuned to speech frequencies, and working around that can be difficult. Guess where melodies (and music in general) sound best to our ears? That's right -- the exact same range as speech. Think about the last time you were trying to hold a conversation when you had the radio tuned to a pop station. Did you notice how much you had to turn it down to be able to hear the other person? Now try talking with about the first 90 seconds of this on in the background:

This piece was scored specifically written to accommodate human voice. Can you keep the volume much louder than the pop music example? You should be able to quite well. It's about space.

For the purposes of visual media discussion, diegesis is anything that is directly represented on-screen as "of the world". So if there's a scene in a smoky cabaret and the music of the scene is being played by a jazz band contained therein, that's diegetic. "Bohemian Rhapsody" is diegetic within Wayne's World, as the characters are obviously aware that the music is coming out of their radio and are reacting to it. (This article talks a bit more about that and other important concepts.) Most all film and video game music is mimetic, not diegetic, meaning that it's not music that is in the world with the characters but has instead been added for the sake of the audience. It's important to understand why that matters: because diegesis is king.

If you ever study opera you will quickly see that the entire orchestra basically exists to support the singer(s). The vocalist is diegetic, or in the world, and must be skirted around carefully by the music, which is mimetic, or outside of the world. Therefore, any composer worth their salt must write around the diegetic part of the story because that's the part that's actually telling the story. In more traditional musical settings like opera this is quite easy to accomplish, as the melody lines are clearly written out in musical notation. In other mediums, it may not be as obvious. This doesn't mean that the concept can be ignored, however.

Even simple conversations have pitch. Great stage actors can have up to a three-octave speaking range; it is how emotion is carried through the voice. Try speaking in a monotone and see how much you are able to convey. Erich Korngold, one of the great early composers of film, was famous for writing diegetic film dialogue out in musical notation and then scoring around that, as he did earlier with opera librettos. While this may not be a necessary step, a basic understanding of the frequency ranges used by male and female speakers and how to avoid writing scores in the same range is not out of the realm of any composer's understanding. As an example, take this clip from The Adventures of Robin Hood, one of Korngold's most famous scores.

Notice that the instrumentation takes up the entire spectrum of sound at the beginning, but then right as the vocals enter at 18 seconds in, they part. The strings become higher, the bass gets a bit lower, and everything that was in between the two drops out. It's a virtual parting of the waters to make room for the voices in their proper register. Just to show it's not a fluke, it does the same thing at 0:43.

I can't think of a single game that really nails this concept, which surprises me. It's not necessarily difficult, one just has to be aware of it. It's sad commentary that the first thing I typically do when I load up a video game is turn the "voice" slider to maximum and the SFX and music sliders down considerably, because they have no concept of how to write and mix around the vocals, instead of barreling over them.

In addition to keeping the frequency range in mind, the composer must also consider other ways they can muddy the text, and avoid them. In the gaming world this most often manifests itself as a score that is so busy it's distracting. Too many notes, too fast a tempo, too much of everything. An expert composer can properly choose the time for the score to become prominent and the time for it to fade into the background, back and forth between the natural breaths of the narrative.

An excellent example of this comes from the trailer for Conan -- a film that was rather terrible from a cinematography and plot standpoint, but had an absolutely outstanding score composed by Basil Poledouris. Watch the whole thing:

Notice how Poledouris actually alters the music for the lines of text? And it works even on its own as a song? Pull out the high strings and choir, throw in some low brass to punch up James Earl Jones' dialogue, it works very well. The actual instrumentation lends itself to the interplay of dialogue and action scenes.

Now for the ugly side of that coin. Sometimes people opt for the lazy way out and dump this on the mixing engineer, who accomplishes such by "ducking" the music when a vocal track is present -- ducking being pulling back the music volume to make room for the vocal to be heard. An example of constant ducking is, well, a lot of trailers, as they tend to have busier, more "intense" music. We'll use Uncharted 3 as a recent example:

Starting at about 40 seconds into the launch trailer, notice the up-down-up-down-up-down as the speech pops in and out. It's distracting and annoying.

Creating audio space is like arranging a bunch of 3D bubbles. Whatever is in the center on the X- and Y-axes and at the front of the Z (depth) axis is going to grab the most attention, and that should always be the vocals. Ducking is a cheap way of pushing the music back on the Z-axis, but that constant shifting is noticeable; the much preferable method is to make space on the front plane of X and Y around the dialogue. It is quite possible to write around dialogue, as thousands upon thousands of hours of Opera and film scoring will attest. Why shouldn't video games do this, as well?

Just Beat It

A beat, in scoring terms, refers to a particular visual point of action that should be accented. This can be a hard cut in the footage, a punch, just about anything. This can be accented in the music in many ways, typically depending on the requirements of the visuals. Here's a quick example that runs the gamut:

The low percussion (likely an udu) as the dragonfly lands on her nose is a beat. The sitar note as it flies away is another. The harp gliss for the reveal of Wonderland is another. The cymbal roll for discovering the caterpillar is yet another; the harsh low brass almost immediately after as his expression sours another still. 25 seconds in and we've hit five beats already. This is a fairly common pace for higher-energy sections and trailers. Notice that each of these has a different effect, but all come together to add interest and impact to what's happening on screen.

It is possible to create music for a beat-heavy visual without using beats, but then it's up to the foley and sound designers to pick up your slack. See here for a quintessential example:

The opposite effect, hard transitions and visual beats without any aural punch at all, feels so unnatural that I can't even find good examples of it, because no one does it.

I've used the example of a trailer here because this is something not really seen in games much, despite having many cut-scenes proliferate in the modern game. Occasionally one can find a use of a single beat, say a cue that build to a big crescendo, but considering many scenes can have potential beats that number well into the double-digits it is a woefully under-utilized idea.

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Daniel Campbell
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I've been complaining for a LONG time that music in games doesn't get the credit and attention it deserves. I know it's kind of an easy target but, look at the Final Fantasy series. I have no doubt that those games wouldn't be even half as successful as they are without Uematsu's music.

Daniel Campbell
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Oh and let's not forget that some of Uematsu's best work was when he was working with severely limited technology. His work with the SNES is simply astounding proving you don't need an orchestra or big budget, you just need well crafted melodies.

Cartrell Hampton
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" in games doesn't get the credit and attention it deserves."
As a composer of music in my own games, I definitely agree with this one.

"... you don't need an orchestra or big budget, you just need well crafted melodies."
Also agree. Furthermore, an understanding of music theory (which I couldn't find any specific mention of in this article) also helps.

- Ziro out.

Robert Boyd
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I gotta say I completely disagree with your general premise so it should come as little surprise to me that you used the game with my favorite soundtrack (Persona 4) and even my favorite song in the game (Heaven) as an example in your bad use of music section.

Let's take a closer look at Heaven, shall we?

The composer of Persona 4 specifically said that he wanted to feature the sort of music that the game's characters would actually listen to, to increase the game's feeling of "Japanese teenagers in high school" that is the game's setting. So Heaven being a form of J-Pop is just sticking true to the game's overarching musical style.

Second, with Heaven, we have several key moment to the music.

0:00-0:17 = Melodic with an element of dischord & menace (Oh no! Something's not right!)
0:42-0:50 = Rising intensity. (Let's fight to save her!)
0:50 and on = More cheerful J-Pop (Everything's going to be okay!)

Since this is the first time that the game has put a young child in danger (and one that the player likely has great affection for), I think it's very telling that the game uses the music to reassure the player the player that everything is going to be okay in the end. The stake's are high but don't lose hope yet.

Also, if you pay attention to the lyrics, they're all about your cousin & uncle's internal struggle. The song is all about being lost in your memories & what is their big struggle in the game? The death of their mother/wife and their inability to move past that. And of course, the title ties into that as well (for your cousin, being in a heaven would be to be reunited with her mother).

Anyway, I suppose going all cinematic with the music is a valid choice for video game music but it's not the only choice. Like for me, I've been playing Mass Effect 2 & 3 a lot recently and I can't recall a single song that played in that game. It's not bad music but it's all stereotypical Hollywood blockbuster stuff that works fine while you're playing it but immediately leaves you as soon as you talk. I prefer music that stands out, says "Listen to me!" and sticks in your head as a pleasant reminder of your experience - you know, like most of the famous video game songs from the 8-bit & 16-bit eras of gaming.

Andrew High
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I agree that lyrics fit the area pretty well, but whether or not Meguro hit his exact intention with the piece I feel that it was flawed. So much pressure in that game had built up to a head with Nanako's capture, and I felt that the game was really trying to get you into a rushed state. Urgency, anger, etc. And to me, this did not fit at all. The music was too relaxed, too was jarring in its dissonance to my emotional state as a player. I can't believe that they were trying to foreshadow that everything was going to be okay, since it's very possible to end the game shortly afterward with (spoilers for anyone who cares at this point) Nanako's death.

In regards to cinematic game music in general, remember that I was more focusing on a cut-scene heavy experience. This specific section with Nier and Persona 4 counter-points was designed to focus on how the principles of diegetic sound and logical cohesion could be applied to dynamic level music, something I readily admit game composers are much better at.

I was not a big fan of the music in either ME 1 or 2 (haven't played 3 yet), but we have a pretty clear difference of opinion of the music we prefer. Highly memorable chiptune melodies served a good purpose just like highly-recognizable TV themes did in the '70s, but lack of recognizability does not lead to a bad experience. Limbo had a brilliant score, but there was no "melody" to speak of. Similarly, Journey has rightfully had its score praised to the heavens but doesn't really have a big recognizable theme. Its recognizability comes from that single, unique cello playing pretty basic lines.

Robert Boyd
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From your article, it sounds like you believe that music in games should be a means to an end (enhancing the mood & feel of the work as a whole) whereas I feel like music in games should be its own reward. I want my players to be excited when they get in a fight or travel to a new area because they get some great music to listen to.

If you don't like my foreshadowing theory for Heaven, here's an alternate idea - the mostly upbeat music in Heaven was supposed to show Nanako's purity & innocence and contrast that with everyone else who had been thrown into the TV (everyone but Nanako had a major character flaw they needed to overcome whereas Nanako was still in a state of childlike innocence). Since Nanako was an innocent young child, the dungeon her psyche created was very different than everyone else's.

Ultimately, I think video game composers could learn from both past video game composers and from cinematic composers. Like in your FFVII example - the vast majority of the soundtrack is very much old-school video game music with strong memorably melodies but they weren't afraid to use cinematic audio techniques to emphasize certain parts of the story like the introduction to Migar sequence & Aeris getting stabbed.

And for a more recent example of a game that does this well, I strongly recommend Gravity Rush.

Andrew High
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Not necessarily, but for the style of game the article is written for...

"This piece is directed toward those who make, compose for, and/or enjoy a cinematic game experience common to most triple-A and an increasing number of indie titles."

Yes, I do think that. When you're trying to create an experience, to elicit an emotional response, anything a player/viewer consciously notices detracts from what you're trying to build. It pulls them out of "living the experience" and reminds them that they're looking at a two-dimensional screen with a piece of plastic in their hand. For very "gamey" games, for lack of a better term, this is fine -- the player is never in doubt of what they're doing. But for a cut-scene in Mega Shooter Du'Jour 4, it hurts what you're trying to build. I would say it's roughly analogous to solving a crossword puzzle versus becoming engrossed in a novel: both are fun, but with one the page is its own reward whereas with the other you forget the book exists.

Frank DAngelo
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All I'm going to say about this is that the Persona 3 and 4 soundtracks are quite possibly my favorite game OSTs as well. Every piece is wonderful, including Heaven. They are different and unique, but catchy and pleasing.

I can agree that the dungeon themes have never been a highlight of the recent Persona games, but Heaven or Secret base don't fall into this category. In Persona 4, they are lacking a bit up until after Rise's dungeon, and from there on out each one is excellent.

Regardless, still my favorite game OSTS, and the music is definitely a high point for me when playing P3 or P4.

Hakim Boukellif
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The thing with games is that unlike film, music isn't just capable of supporting what you're watching, it can also affect what you're doing.

To use a classic as an example:

When playing this game, I'm very much aware of the music, bopping my head as I play. But exactly because of this, I'm put into a certain groove. I feel motivated to bump into every enemy I come across, instead of just taking the most efficient route to my next destination. Of course, since I need to be at a certain level to beat the upcoming boss, I'd be doing this anyway, regardless of what the music is like, but then it would mostly be because of a conscious decision I made by treating the game as a purely mechanical thing, instead of the adventure it's trying to be.

Roger Haagensen
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Nice article, but you a forgetting to mention one type of music that only games (currently) can provide.

Dynamic Music.

By that I mean music that change as you enter/leave an area, or that change on the type of action (walking, running, combat, danger, calm), music that change depending on the enemy or characters, music that changes depending on which path in the story you take (if multiple paths) and the length of the music may also vary, but it all remains seamless.

With this the composer is not the only "musician" but the player is unknowingly one as well as the way the play actually changes the music.

Andrew High
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I did actually have a section on this, but decided to cut it for several reasons. One of the main ones being that I feel game composers already have a strong grasp of this since, outside of a couple esoteric 20th century composers, they basically invented the concept. I left in one section dealing with level sound design just to illustrate how the cinematic concepts can be skillfully paired with the dynamic level music tenets that game composers already know well.

The focus of this article is really geared toward those big, cinematic moments -- the ones most gamers will remember for years afterward (at least, the designers hope!). If you ask a Final Fantasy fan to think back on Final Fantasy VII, he's not going to think about the many hours he spent mindlessly grinding materia; he's going to think about Aeris getting a sword in her back. The idea is to find those impactful moments that so many triple-A games have now (as noted, upwards of five hours for games like MGS4 and Xenoblade) and use principles that have existed elsewhere in music for literally hundreds of years to our advantage. The information is there and easily accessible, but it's not being utilized.

Even so, it's worth paying attention for pure level music designers, as well. I'm struggling to think of an example off the top of my head, but there have been multiple occasions where the music has been written to cover the full spectrum and it winds up sonically hiding certain sound effects that are important cues to the player, like battle noises and whatnot. Since the sound effects are diegetic, they should take precedence, but people don't seem to write with that idea in mind and it's up to the mixing engineer to complete the unenviable task of trying to find a way to make the two co-exist, which is very difficult. Better to compose that problem out of existence altogether.

Nejc Eber
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I really liked Red Dead Redemption music. How they combined different stems, and ambient sound to really create a compelling soundscape. I have prefered it in comparison to more cinematic music in other AAA titles.

Nejc Eber
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I really liked Red Dead Redemption music. How they combined different stems, and ambient sound to really create a compelling soundscape. I have prefered it in comparison to more cinematic music in other AAA titles.

bob rice
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Game music should compel the game player to feel what the game developer wants the player to feel at every moment in the game. Additionally, it's very cool when not playing the game, the music is still playing in the mind of the gamer.

Bob Rice
four bars intertainment
World's # 1 producer of music for games.

Michael Joseph
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Rome Total War soundtrack

Medieval II: Total War soundtrack

Jeff van Dyck composed two of the best soundtracks for any turn based strategy or real time strategy game... ever.

And as Roger Hågensen talked about, they did a great job of making the music dynamic/contextual/apropos to the current state of the game.

Robert Marney
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Jeremy Soule's Total Annihilation soundtrack is also a standout in the strategy genre, despite some painful dynamic cuts. The full orchestra and wide mood palette really lend an air of melancholy and gravitas to a relatively abstract, unrealistic game.

Conor Brace
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Great article, with lots of interesting references to investigate further!

At first I thought you might be placing the term "cinematic" on too high a pedestal. I have little patience for developers whose primary goal is to create a "cinematic experience," resulting in highly-scripted sequences devoid of any meaningful gameplay. (It's not just the odd "press X to not die" moment, either; google "modern military shooters in a nutshell.") We have a whole new medium to explore here, and we MUST be willing to step out from big brother Film's shadow.

But (and correct me if I'm wrong) I think you are more referring to the way that cinematic music can paint vivid pictures, develop themes, evoke emotion, be carefully crafted to suit the needs of the medium and yet still stand on its own as art. Yes? :)

I'm a young composer who's constantly learning from the film music tradition. But writing for games has its own challenges. As you ask on page 3: what does it mean for music to "tell the story" of a level? How to structure a score that's cohesive yet stands up to repetition? And further, how to deal with variable pacing? (Not to mention variable plot?) How should player action cause changes in the music... and how can changes in the music cause player action?

Two recent indie game scores I've really enjoyed:

JAMESTOWN has forgettable cutscenes but fantastic level music. It immediately calls you to action, and takes advantage of the game's mostly-set timing to create a sense of anticipation, tense concentration, or brief respite at the appropriate moments.

BASTION has a couple of stages that use diagetic music to provoke a response from the player. Who is that singing? How do I reach her? What does it mean? It creates an enticing mystery. At the end of the game you finally hear and understand the whole song -- using the music as both an emotional hit and a reward mechanism.

The bottom line for me is this:
"Producers should think very clearly about their emotional and intellectual goals with their projects, and how to convey those to composers." Yes yes yes. And composers should be willing to lead this conversation if necessary.

Andrew High
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Yes. :-)

As you intuit, I don't necessarily mean cinematic in a sense of "like movies"; after all, there are plenty of ineffective or downright bad film scores. I mean cinematic in the sense that it is the marriage of music, visuals, and usually spoken word. This intertwining of media has been going on for thousands of years, and there are many lessons broadly applicable to any medium that marries these stimuli into a cohesive whole.

It's fine to escape big brother's shadow and strike out on your own, but hopefully you can learn a lesson from big brother's DUI without having to actually get caught under the influence yourself, right?

Joshua Howard
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Am I right in assuming you are the author of this article? I ask because I couldn't find any author's details in the article itself. Your article gave me inspiration for the topic of a thesis I am working on for my Audio engineering degree I am currently doing, and I would like to make sure I can give due reference for the article.

Joshua Darlington
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You kind of lost me when you disrespected Conan The Barbarian (1982). I have no idea what to make of that. To me, it's like calling Star Wars a cheesy 70's film. It's John Milius! Do you think Apocalypse Now sucks?

When I think about game music, my biggest concern is the quantity of the music. Why would a 20 hour or 200 hundred hour game have one or two hours of music? It's painful like retina burn. I wish every game had a way to turn off the music so I could supply my own soundtrack.

Andrew High
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Haha, fair enough. :-) I actually really love watching that movie, and it does have a great score, but from an acting and cinematography perspective I don't think it's very good. You are certainly welcome to disagree.

As to your question, I'm pretty sure it has to do entirely and 100% with money. Composers have to eat too, and composing hours and hours of music takes a lot of time and money that isn't necessarily there (although I am clearly ALL FOR throwing more money at your composers, guys!). So instead you get several 4-minute loops of music that run roughshod over dialogue because they're one-size-fits-all compositions that are designed to slip in wherever the developer needs them.

Unless art asset creation suddenly gets much less expensive or budgets suddenly grow a lot, that probably won't change. What I would recommend is to find the peaks in the game -- of emotion, of tension, of plot -- and focus heavily on hand-crafting scores for those. Start there, have a proof-of-concept that you can test, and if it works out well start looking at how that can be integrated into other parts of the game.

Michael Theiler
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I think music gets old in games because it is relied upon as a crutch to whatever is happening in-game. If it were to be used to highlight certain key points, in certain situations dynamically but sparingly, I don't think it would get old.

Alexei Baboulevitch
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Thank you for the fantastic article!

Some of my favorite moments in games have been when the music interacted with the visuals in some way:

* Portal 2 — When you use a jump pad, another layer gets added to the music. (I also noticed this in Nitronic Rush.)
* Super Mario Galaxy — It blew my mind when I went underwater for the first time and the background music actually changed orchestration instead of getting run through a filter.
* Jamestown — When you find the lost colony of Roanoke, the clouds part, the enemies disappear, and the music rests on a haunting cadence.
* Rayman Origins — The soundtrack, static though it may be, references things in the current scene. For example, in the water level, the Lums close to the surface are happy and swim around in formation, while the Lums you find in the depths are asleep and float silently in the darkness. Compare the two tracks:

Fez is another interesting example, where the orchestration, structure, and possibly even the mode of the music changes dynamically based on the setting, time of day, and other factors. You can learn more about it in the excellent Fez technical postmortem.

I wish games experimented more with music.

Pres N
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Apropos of nothing else in the comments section, it was awesome to see you link to the Music of Nier wikipedia article. It's not my best writing, but it's nice to see that someone appreciated it.

Roger Haagensen
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Has anyone else been annoyed by having to reduce the volume for SFX and Music, sometimes by more than 50% (about 6dB reduction) and still at times music or SFX drown out the dialog so you have to resort to subtitles to make sure you do not miss anything.

I can't recall this being such an issue in the past with older games, but more so in modern games.
And don't get me started on cutscenes, there the SFX or Music volume is ignored (I presume it is using the Music volume instead then as often the cutscene ends up too low and dialog is drowned out), that is if the cutscene do not crash the game (I've always had issues with Bink video it seems) or has issues with flickering or resolution change hickups. Sorry, kinda ranting off there for a moment.

Somebody is screwing up something somewhere as dialog should always be more important than SFX and Music.
And I'm not talking about a grenade going off an armlength away from you on the battlefield. But instead someone talking in a car, or on a ship, or even in a cutscened (but if pre-rendered then any dialog setting is ignored it seems), situations where the designers/musician/sound engineer "should know" what sounds are being heard at that moment (or can control them) and can properly balance them vs dialog.

Adam Bishop
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Yes, this is a really frustrating problem that far too many games have. Any dialogue that is part of the main narrative thread should be crisp and clear.

Luis Guimaraes
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Baba yetu, yetu uliye Mbinguni yetu, yetu amina!

Daneel Filimonov
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Civ. 4!

Noisy Nothing
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This is a terrific article but I feel I should point out that at least part of the music in the Conan trailer is from Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, and is not by Basil Poledouris. You can hear the piece in question here: - it is perhaps not a coincidence that Prokofiev himself wrote music for films.

Peter Silk
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I think Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge is one of the best sountracks in terms of both cohesion, with all of its recurring but varied motifs, and intergration with the game, where the iMUSE system prevented jarring cuts between one musical moment and the next (exemplified in the Woodtick section at the start, but the conversations LeChuck at the end are also very clever in how they wait for certain dialogue moments to happen before progressing the music, and begin to weave important motifs from the series together). It was ambitious in 1992, with well over an hour of music, and going back and listening to it, it still feels ambitious.

JoseArias NikanoruS
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Great article!! And thanks a lot for sharing it.

I would try to defend Persona 4 a little... for me the Persona games (and Shin Megami Tensei as a whole) is about feeling "perturbed". When I heard the music of the first dungeons on Persona 2 it was reall disturbing how the music played. As you say, the music seems more fitting to a rave and that's something that I would say actually plays to its favor. If you are an outsider an you see a rave, you see this music that is kind of aggressive (or really "hyper") and you see all the people going around lost in the music... it doesn't feel comfortable, even if the music isn't that aggressive it does feel intimidating. Now, let's say that the ravers are demons (digital demons, if we get back to the main series). I do agree that music like in Near helps for a more cohesive story... But I feel like the approach of the Persona games is effective on its way. For example, the last piece... it makes me feel more desperate because it seems like the music is the one playing for the ones around you (or it's playing on the radio that is obviously not playing something to fit your mood). So your going through this terrible trance and everybody else is just living heir lives (or that's how it would seem).

On the other hand, what do you think about Kirby's Epic Yarn music? I found it quite interesting since it all revolves a piano and now that I think about it, maybe it's a way of reforcing the theme that everything is made of yarn.

Also, Little King's Story? I found the music incredibly fitting with the whole setting. But also that it did communicate a lot both through the previous knowledge we have of some of the songs and also because they really REALLY fit the mood. Right now I'm remembering the songs of the Ripe Kingdom and also the songs of the Worrywart kingdom.... and let's not forget the last boss theme!!

Have a great day!!

Christian Nutt
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Kirby's Epic Yarn's soundtrack is at times completely astounding. It falls very much into the "music while you play" mode (which works well for a platformer, anyway) but the level of technique is just fantastic, and it's beautiful.

dren mcdonald
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Very interesting read, and thanks for sparking the discussion.

I'd like to add that I think when we see game composers start to integrate/implement their own cues and stems into the game, we'll start seeing a higher level of score sophistication. Some people here have mentioned titles like Portal 2, Fez, Bastion and Limbo, where this was exactly the case and we were witness to some wonderfully creative moments. In fact, to one of your points, at a recent GANG summit, Mike Morasky talked about the opening to Portal 2, where Wheatley's voice acted as the lead instrument for the cutscene.

Sometimes, due to varying circumstances, a composer's cue will be pulled into a scene that wasn't originally intended, or the stems will be reconstructed in a way that might surprise the composer etc, and while most teams try to avoid these scenarios...crunchtime has a way of forcing some tough decisions.

Michael Theiler
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This is the best critical piece of writing on game dev practice I have read on Gamasutra. It encapsulates my fumbling philosophies on this subject perfectly, and much more eloquently and precisely than I ever could.

I particularly liked the contrast between the great film composers and then the Assassin's Creed example. It is a design based piece of score, in that it is there to serve a purpose, but that purpose is so unintelligent! There is the possibility of incorporating some sense of remorse or sadness into the act of killing, but it is instead purely a "run away! Faster! Yikes!" piece of music. The possibility of using music for something more subtle or complex is disregarded.

I work in audio for games, so perhaps I have a different ear to most gamers, but I pay attention to the music in games, and more often than not, probably 80% of the time, I am actively frsutrated or angered by it. As mentioned, filler music does nothing for a game, yet is in almost every game I have played in the last few years (bar Limbo). Music in games is largely stagnant. Games like Journey and Limbo are changing this, but it appears to be slow going. This article is the type of writing that may help alter the course. Comparisons to film can be unproductive for games in general, but in this case, the examples teach so much!

Ryan Elder
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Really great article here. I've done a bit of composing for games and the problem I see with most scores is that they are nearly always pre-scored (meaning the composer is given a rough description of a scene and some reference material and told to write a piece of music without seeing the action that the piece will accompany.) I think most of the problems you reference in game scoring come from this. Games come out so fast and furious these days that studios don't have time to create the game and then have a composer really get into the nitty gritty of scoring it. Unfortunately what this does is it puts the job of "scoring" the action in the hands of editors and directors as opposed to composers as they will craft the visuals around the already approved music. All of the great film examples you reference were most likely post scored. The music got to react to the picture as opposed to the other way around. Most games (especially triple A games on tight schedules) can't afford the luxury of time it takes to post score sadly.

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Interesting article and I really love how you pulled all of those examples to make things crystal clear.

"It's sad commentary that the first thing I typically do when I load up a video game is turn the "voice" slider to maximum and the SFX and music sliders down considerably,"

I do this as well, but I never thought it was the actual composition of the music that caused this. I figured it was more of the designers being like, "nobody cares about the story anyways" or "they'll just speed read through the subtitles so why bother getting a good balance?"

Liz Cormack
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Love this post, Andrew! Your mentioned of Bit.Trip & Audiosurf at the end inspired some more research on music games -- I'd love to know what you think of the games we featured! Thanks for this post!

Guy Whitmore
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Your critique is not so much about 'game scoring', but about the 'film scoring' done within the context of games. And the thesis seems to be 'there's a lot more game composers need to learn about film scoring techniques'. Fair enough; every good composer never stops learning and gaining new tools for their craft. But you missed an opportunity to truly talk about 'game scoring'.

The film scoring aspects of games are a subset of what game scoring is ( or could be). Cinematics are an important filmic part of the overall experience, conveying emotion and story, but even they are often dynamic and non-linear. A key difference between film and games is that you, the gamer, are often considered the protagonist, not simply an observer. This changes everything.

In-game scoring is far greater underseved than cinematic game scoring. Your comment above that 'most game composers have a strong grasp of' dynamic in-game scoring, is completely misinformed. The truth is that the majority of game composers don't integrate their music into the game (most often it's an audio lead) or design where how and when their music will play in a game.

For every technique you mention in the article, we should all ask 'how could that best be done in a dynamic situation, where timing is not predetermined?' Then you'll really start to get at the fun and challenging issues that game composers face. We're just scratching the surface of what scoring a game can be creatively and technically. And if we're not talking about its dynamic aspects, we're not really talking about game scoring.

Lennie Moore
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I'm with Guy on this one. Although I appreciate your points relating to effective film scoring techniques which could be used to more advantage in games, the heart of game scoring IMO is that it is ADAPTIVE music.

I come from film/TV and I fell in love with scoring for games 14 years ago when I scored my first title because I could see the tremendous possibilities in adaptive music composition as it relates to the game experience. I have found no other comparable medium as rich in its potential as it is in game scoring.

Sure you can learn to hit beats, stay out of the way of dialog, emphasizing/de-emphasizing story points. That's easy. You can get that out of a book (Earle Hagan: Scoring for Film if you wish). What's hard and for me the most thrilling part of scoring for games is to write an adaptive score that acts as the emotional undercurrent of the game experience while dynamically synchronizing with the dramatic moments that could happen any any time, based on player choices. That, my friend, is an unique and special experience that film can't touch.

I'm proud to call myself a game composer over being "a film guy." I honestly feel that the film community could learn a thing or two about the craft of composition from folks like us.

By the way, Guy...
NOLF = frikkin' genius adaptive score brutha!

Douglas Scheinberg
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Voice acting seems to have changed game music a lot. As you note, the music you write to be heard behind spoken dialogue is not the same music that you write to be heard when there is no spoken dialogue. The SNES era had some amazing soundtracks; I still don't think Final Fantasy VI's soundtrack has been surpassed, nor has any game since used its soundtrack as effectively to deliver emotion.

This scene is the perfect example:

Also, notice that the music doesn't start until a few seconds into the video. This is *not* an artifact of recording - the game really did have a moment of silence when the scene started, making the first few notes stand out more.

Damon Smith III
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Wow. I JUST signed up today and this was one heck of a first-time read! I greatly appreciate the information! It's refreshing to know that there are people out there that have noticed music nowadays have just become backing tracks for pictures. Thank you so much!

Tim Haywood
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I find the whole article long winded, inaccurate, self serving, and the conclusion section insulting. I can tell its written by someone who has NOT worked that long within video games (if at all?) As far back as the Commodore 64; music was used to great effect to aid the story telling, perhaps not enough research was done before writing this article - and that with 4 pages of text perhaps being more succinct would of improved it, even if the point being made was wrong (as it is).

My advice would be to do much more research before insulting an industry of composers.